Marcel Duchamp coined the term readymade in 1916 and used it to describe prefabricated, mass-produced objects that the artist chooses and isolates from their intended uses, thereby elevating them to the status of art. What Ander Monson blurbs of CORRECTION, Gabriel Blackwell’s newest offering from Rescue Press, echoes what many of Duchamp’s contemporary critics had to say about his work: “WTF is this . . . exactly?” This question—which Monson, in contrast to Duchamp’s critics, means as a compliment—seems shared by Blackwell’s other ebullient and baffled blurbers, who find in his work an “addition to the literature of bewilderment,” a “curvilinear collage of texts found and imagined,” a “puzzle-box” that “defies categorization.” Although they overwhelmingly insist that Blackwell disrupts rather than preserves tradition, disruption is of course its own tradition—the one at modernism’s pulsing heart. While the modernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries needed new forms of art and philosophy to reflect and engage with the emerging industrial world, the modernists of the early twenty-first century need new forms of art and philosophy to reflect and engage with the advent of a cyberspace that has come to impact every aspect of our physical reality. Blackwell calls the short prose pieces in CORRECTION “readymades,” and in them he works to refashion our daily encounters with the digital by dissolving the lines between fiction/nonfiction, found/created, and remembered/dreamed.
As editor of the often-experimental magazine The Rupture and author of five previous volumes of genre-bending prose, Blackwell has been subverting conventions for over a decade. CORRECTION is more accessible than much of his previous work—which is rife with mathematical proofs, facsimile memoranda, and thousand-word sentences—but this accessibility renders it more radical. Although it is no manifesto, there’s no doubting Blackwell’s insistence that all of us should scrutinize the media we consume and treat each other with dignity whether online or in person. The subject matter of the readymades—glib and heartbreaking by turn—often springs from the clickbait headlines and political slogans that invade our consciousness at the speed of spam. Yet in collecting and repackaging quintessentially digital stories in an analog format—the pages of his book analogous to the plinth upon which Duchamp displayed his Fountain—Blackwell paradoxically makes something new.
Prefabricated, mass-produced objects are nothing if not ordinary, and perhaps the most horrifying thing about Blackwell’s readymades is their utter normalcy in our world of profit-oriented mega-media and attention-grabbing internet newsfeeds. Readymade #011, “Successful,” in which a CPA holds a gun to his daughter’s head with his ex-wife on speakerphone, follows #010, “Trigger,” in which the corporation that owns a hotel where a mass shooting occurred files suit against the victims of the mass shooting, follows #009, “Viral,” in which a father posts videos of himself abusively “pranking” his eight-year-old son. The onslaught of readymades report not only on these incidents, but on the reporting of these incidents, a crowd of lawyers, reporters, spokespeople, and influencers spilling from the pages. But what Robert Coles says of James Agee might likewise be said of Blackwell: he is “better at realizing what isn’t working than at finding out what might work.” This collection is more dystopia than utopia, composed, as Blackwell has admitted, “in a perpetual state of anger or anxiety.”
Although each character stands indicted in the glare of Blackwell’s gaze, most manage an astounding degree of complexity, given that no readymade runs longer than three pages, and that some are as short as a single sentence. Neither does Blackwell shy away from indicting himself—or a character like himself (i.e., a philosophically oriented writer/teacher who is extremely familiar with both the publishing world and the university system). This willingness to take a seat at the table, paired with his refusal to simplify the difficulty that we all experience integrating our digital avatars with our material selves, saves this book from becoming the type of invective so prevalent among the internet trolls Blackwell writes about. In CORRECTION, anger springs from fear, which springs from the fishiness of swimming in water we cannot recognize as water. Each readymade is a Rube Goldbergesque attempt to escape the aquarium.
In #052, “What is this thing?” the narrator asks his friend about a “thing . . . on the back of [his] arm,” and she answers, “I’m not a doctor, not, I mean, a medical doctor,” at which point the narrator launches into an explanation about how she is really “no kind of doctor, medical or otherwise,” not even a professor at the local community college, “only, officially an ‘Instructor,’ ” which he knows because he “looked her up on the school’s website,” a bit of online sleuthing swollen with cynical distrust, yet familiar—even routine—to anyone reading this piece. The title refers ostensibly to the blemish on the narrator’s arm, but might variously refer to the academic industrial complex, or to the narrator’s neurotic obsession with decorum and achievement, or to the written anecdote itself, which characteristically turns self-reflexive toward the end when the narrator wonders why he keeps coming to his friend with his medical complaints and realizes that his “health problems are the only way [he] has of relating to other people anymore.” This quick turn from pedantic chiding to earnest confession opens an aperture of potential contact—not only between the two characters, but also between the reader and the narrator—an opening foreclosed when the busboy “picks just this moment to drop the bin,” and the narrator’s waiter, “exiting the kitchen through the door conspicuously marked IN, picks that moment to say Wow, just put it anywhere.” The juxtaposition of busboy/waiter to narrator/friend encourages readers to compare the righteousness of the waiter and the narrator, both of whom, Blackwell insists, not only move in the wrong direction (OUT through the IN door), but paradoxically magnify their own blunders by expatiating—for an audience—upon the blunders of others.
Disconnection—resulting from distraction, on the one hand, and projection (as opposed to introspection), on the other—vibrates through this book where “real life” alternately interrupts and is interrupted by the ubiquitous internet. Blackwell’s characters, like Kafka’s, never seem able to arrive at their destinations. The woman on the train, for example, in the first readymade, “Silence,” can figure out neither how to phrase her anger in the social media post she’s typing on her phone nor whom exactly to blame for the problem she hopes to highlight. Meanwhile, she can’t help but catalog the offensive people and objects assaulting her sense of propriety on the train. Although the narration seems to be a compendium of all the things she sees, the listing of these things in such compulsive succession points the reader’s gaze toward all the things this self-righteous woman must certainly be missing. Because she remains unwilling to risk any contact with the physical world, she unconsciously—and paradoxically—opts to maintain the status quo. When the train brakes and the stinky dirt-and-iodine man makes “full contact with her,” she “elbow[s] him hard” and says, “fuck you, you creep! except really [she] just trie[s] to get smaller and [says] nothing, thinking, my stop’s the next stop; I can hold on until then.” It would be easy to ridicule this character’s habit of looking down her nose at people, but doing so would only add another nested doll to the overarching figure of righteousness. Instead, readers are invited—beyond the finger-wagging—to witness the tragedy of the way this woman moves through the world: blind to any beauty dancing on the train right in front of her and incapable of standing up for herself.
Blackwell’s sentences stretch to extreme lengths and burst at the seams with parenthetical asides, the narration always wanting to move in multiple directions simultaneously yet checked by the conventions of prose. While the task of capturing our online rabbit-holing, our social media compulsions, our senseless doomscrolling, etc., in straightforward narration is one of magnanimous proportions, Blackwell makes it look as easy as pulling a phone from a pocket. Readymade #022, “Tabs,” catalogs the tabs open on the narrator’s computer, and includes an analogy for the way we navigate—and are navigated by—the internet: “an endlessly looping gif of a dog carrying a stick in its mouth and finding it impossible to pass through a gate because the stick it is carrying is wider than the gate and because it refuses to drop the stick before trying to pass through the gate.” By using linear prose as his tool to remediate his readymades, Blackwell focuses his attention—and ours—on the distracted world, analyzing, step by narrative step, absurd situations and the way they are spun in order to escape mediation entirely.
His commentary on the abundance of available information—information shot through with bad intent, decontextualized, censored, full of omissions, and churned through rumor mills until it loses its original meaning—skirts explicit forms of philosophical/sociological explication and instead revels in the inherent dark comedy that necessarily attends it. Again and again, Blackwell asks if it has become impossible to parody the absurdity of what we call reality, repeating the phrase “and this is true” throughout his readymades to indicate his utter astonishment at the helter-skelter world that each of us helps to manufacture.
In #023, “Scenery,” Blackwell examines the indoor boyhood of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, who—though “kept at home and not allowed out” like a young Siddhartha Gautama or an older Des Esseintes—was “given perfect freedom to invent” on the imaginary walks he takes “up and down the room.” Reality, then, might be whatever we want it to be, if we manage to deny ourselves—or, more perniciously, if others manage to deny us—access to reality. And a boy locked inside a house might be characterized as possessing “perfect freedom.”
Herman and Chomsky write that the “public is not sovereign over the media”; rather “the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered, and the public must choose among these.” This is why we find in readymade #012 “a reporter who was reporting on a piece of reporting done by a reporter for one of the nation’s big daily newspapers,” and why in readymade #005 the standards dictating that the reporters of traditional news outlets present “comments as faithfully and objectively as possible” prove woefully inadequate. In this latter example, “the state party’s executive director” and “the prominent conspiracy theorist” use more direct means—in the first case Twitter, in the second, an “internet radio show”—to communicate directly with their audiences, and thus define the parameters of the conversation, upon which the traditional news outlets must then report “objectively,” making themselves into tools for the dissemination of misinformation.
By engaging artistically and politically with the structure of our readymade reality, Blackwell refuses to add his voice to the static of repetitive content and thus provides a framework for moving beyond the alienation and reification that commodity capitalism demands of individuals. His remediations render chaotic information intelligible and point if not toward hope—which has been commodified like everything else—then at least toward a potential escape from the labyrinth of passivity.